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Phelps on Skis?

Lindsey Vonn's World Cup dominance is evoking visions of a gold medal bonanza in Vancouver

Lindsey Vonn's two World Cup downhill victories (and a second-place finish in the Super G) last weekend at the Canadian Rockies resort of Lake Louise confirmed that she is the dominant women's speed skier in the world, with the potential to win as many as four gold medals at the Winter Olympics that open Feb. 12 in Vancouver. Vonn has won the last two World Cup overall titles (awarded to the skier with the most points in the five Alpine disciplines) and 24 World Cup races in her career, more than any other U.S. woman in history. She has also won seven races in six years at Lake Louise.

But notice of Vonn's extraordinary readiness for the 2010 Games came more quietly, at a training camp in Portillo, Chile, in September. Despite changing skis (from financially strapped Rossignol to Head) and technicians, the 5'10", 160-pound Vonn was so fast on minute-long downhill training runs that her coach and husband, Thomas Vonn, says she was threatening her male counterparts.

"She was really, really fast," says Thomas. "I don't want to lay any names out there, and I'm not talking about American skiers, but on some sections of downhill races she was even with top-level World Cup men, and on other sections she was flat-out beating them. There was some grumbling going on. It was pretty entertaining."

Lindsey's Vancouver push began almost as soon as she crashed on a training run two days before the 2006 Olympic downhill outside Turin, Italy. She started four races in that year's Games with painful bruises on her back and pelvis and finished no better than seventh. More than three years later, in mid-November, she said, "Right now I'm stronger than I've ever been."

In Vancouver, racing in five events over 13 days, Vonn will be thrust into the role of skiing's Michael Phelps in NBC's TV coverage. "I've heard the comparison quite a few times," she says, "and I don't know about that."

Vonn opened her 2009--10 World Cup season with four races in the "technical" disciplines of slalom and giant slalom, and her best finish was second in a slalom on Nov. 14 in Levi, Finland. While she is a threat in the slalom and combined (downhill plus slalom), she is strongest in the speed events: downhill and Super G. At Lake Louise she won the first downhill, last Friday, by a huge margin, .52 of a second, over Emily Brydon of Canada. In the second downhill, on Saturday, Vonn finished .35 in front of her close friend Maria Riesch of Germany. On Sunday Vonn narrowly missed a hat trick, finishing .03 behind Elisabeth Goergl of Austria in the Super G.

In Vonn's sport, sun, wind, melting snow and stray pebbles can play havoc with predictions. The best skier does not always win. But barely two months from the Olympics, Vonn is almost surely the best skier.

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Bode's Back

Even before the World Cup season began in earnest, two U.S. Olympic hopefuls had suffered season-ending injuries. Women's slalom specialist Resi Stiegler broke her left leg during a November training camp at Copper Mountain Ski Resort in Colorado, and men's speed specialist T.J. Lanning injured his neck and left knee in a terrifying crash at Lake Louise on Thanksgiving weekend.

Bode Miller, however, appears to be on the verge of recapturing his old form. The gifted and controversial racer (below) returned to the U.S. Ski team in late September after a seven-month break (and two years of operating his own independent team) and on Saturday finished fourth in the World Cup downhill in Beaver Creek, Colo.



TWO DOWN Vonn outraced the field on Saturday for her second downhill win of the weekend.